Simplicity vs Complexity

In imagery and in life

My dad, a toolmaker for Ford Motor Company, used to say he could make anything out of metal. He also said, “The difficult I can do tomorrow; the simple takes a little longer.” It’s the same with photography—or any kind of art or design endeavor. Although there is an underlying order in nature, she appears to be complex on the surface. So attempts toward simplicity, whether in creative expression or lifestyle requires concerted effort.

In my Visual Communication classes we discussed the continuum of complex imagery at one end of the spectrum and simplicity on the other. It’s not just the number of visual elements within a frame that makes an image complex. It’s also the fact that the expanded relationship—element to element—provides a high level of potential for viewers to “read out” and “read into” the image.

The upside of complex imagery is that it carries a great deal of information. That’s the downside as well. With so much potential to read or interpret, there’s a tendency to treat complex images superficially, to give them a glance—long enough for recognition and  move on. This is how we consume magazines, movies and the electronic media.

It doesn’t have to be that way, but as a culture we in the western world tend to be information hungry and rapid consumers, like we have to get it all in as quickly as possible. Since childhood, we’ve been taught that more information is better. That’s certainly true when it comes to the maintenance of both mechanical and living systems. But there’s more power to be realized in an image that simple, focused, so there are few if any distractions from the subject. Because simplicity is rare visually, it excels at triggering emotion. 

As noted, the creation of simple images requires more attention and effort. Make a frame with your fingers and look around your room. Try to find any subject matter that has very few elements within that frame. There isn’t much. Outside, it becomes even more difficult. Exceptions include certain Japanese temples and Zen monasteries where simplicity of lifestyle and environmental design is a lived discipline. The message and practice in these places is “consume less and appreciate more.”

Simplicity is largely absent from our everyday environments—and lives—because it requires the reduction or elimination of elements. We have lots of stuff and few places to put it. And consuming more—media and smartphones especially—leaves little time for appreciating, really attending to what we have. In composing visual elements within a frame, neither complexity nor simplicity is right or wrong, good or bad. Each derives from different perceptions of the world, life and the cosmos, and each delivers a different experience. For instance, compare the simple image above, with the complex one below.

A simple design requires a process of elimination. As the number of elements are reduced, the emotional impact that an image has will increase. In the image of the single push-pin there are only three elements—the black background, the plastic holder and the metal pin. In contrast, the complex image contains the identical subject matter, but the number of elements is significantly higher and relationships are involved, making the brain work harder to make sense of the increased information. After a quick glance, we move on—so not to be overloaded. With a simple image we engage longer, study it, because simplicity is unusual and appealing. There’s less demand to ascertain what’s going on. And there’s harmony, a quality of satisfaction and interest that comes from tapping more into the essence of a subject.

Thus, the principle for image makers: If the communication objective is to convey information, complex imagery or design is the advisable approach. When it’s to convey an experience or emotion, it’s better to go with simplicity—sometimes. Like verbal communication, visual communication can be messy. There are always exceptions.

Applying these observations to my life, I notice how difficult it is to simplify. I seem to need a lot of space and stuff to maintain an aesthetic and comfortable home, do my work and pursue my interests. I think of the Native Americans who, living in teepees, could gather their belongings in a morning and move on. At the other end of the spectrum I think of the “rat race,” where people educate themselves and work hard for many years to achieve prestigous positions and salaries, only to find their jobs stressful and unfulfilling. 

Simplicity of thought and mind will lead to a reduction of the desire for material things. It may seem paradoxical but the gift of simplicity is the gift of abundance.

Satish, Kumar, Indian British activist and pacifist,

Author, Elegant Simplicity: The art of living well.

In his groundbreaking and visionary book, Voluntary Simplicity, Duane Elgin made the case for living with balance and ecological awareness, a life that is “outwardly simple and inwardly rich.” More recently, Linda Breen Pierce’s book, Choosing Simplicity: Real People Finding Peace and Fulfillment in a Complex World provides compelling stories of people who chose to simplify their lives. An example close to home, my friend Glenn Geffcken and his wife Maria, moved to a remote location in New Mexico to live off the grid. As homesteaders, they’re constructing the life they want to live from the ground up. 

Considering the above images together, I notice that they depict different states of consciousness as well as communication and lifestyle strategies. Waking consciousness is extremely complex and dynamic. It needs to be, for us to engage in and process information. Recently, brain researchers found that sleep performs a cleansing function for the neurons, equivalent to erasing the buildup of chalk on a blackboard. The mind becomes renewed. The act of contemplation does the same thing in a waking state by focusing for a time on just one thing. And perhaps the ultimate reduction of mental complexity comes with meditation. The reason, I suppose, is that meditation’s proper object is being rather than doing or having. Simply being present.

Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains.

Steve Jobs, Entrepreneur, business magnate, industrial designer


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